DB 052: Haben Girma, The First Deafblind Graduate From Harvard Law School, On Why We Should Embrace Our Differences

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TODAY’S GUEST

This week, Olga and Eva were delighted to have Haben Girma in the show. Haben is the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.  Due to her work advocating for equal opportunities for people with disabilities, President Obama named Haben a White House Champion of Change, and Forbes recognized her in Forbes 30 Under 30.

You might be wondering…. If Haben is deafblind how was she able to participate in an interview over Skype (which is how we record our shows)?   In the interview, Haben describes how with the help of and interpreter and amazing technology she was able to receive our questions and articulate such beautiful answers throughout the interview. We are also providing a full transcript of the interview below so you can read through the entire interview further down on this page.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

  • Haben’s childhood, and how her parents inspired her positive outlook in life.
  • Haben shares how she was able to receive our questions during the interview and provide her answers.
  • How Haben became the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.
  • Haben’s meeting with President Obama and President Clinton.
  • The advocacy work Haben has been doing for people with disabilities.
  • Why as a society we should embrace our differences and look at them as an asset.
  • Haben describes the difference between using a cane and having a guide dog.
  • Haben shares some stories about her guide dog, Maxine.
  • Haben’s advice to her 10 year-old self.
  • Haben’s BIG DREAM for the future.
  • Haben’s love for improv.
  • And so much more!

RESOURCES

COMPLETE TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW

Eva: Hi Haben

Haben: Hi Eva. How are you?

Eva: Good. It’s an absolute honor to have you on the show.

Haben: Well you sent me a really charming poem, and I couldn’t resist. I love your talent with words.

Eva: Thank you. To be honest, I’ve seen people who are blind before usually with a service dog and cane and we’ve learned some basic sign language at school for communicating with deaf people.  But I had not heard of someone being both deaf and blind.  Do you have any idea of how many people are Deafblind around the world?

Haben: That’s a tricky question. Everybody comes up with different numbers. There’s one study in 1993 that says that there about 40,000 people who are Deafblind in the United States, but I think that number is way too small, and the population has changed since 1993.

Eva: Yeah

Haben: There’s another study from the United Kingdom that says in the UK, there are about 300,000 people who are Deafblind.

Eva: Wow

Haben: So the number in the United States is probably much much bigger

Olga: If you consider that we have 7 billion people in the world that is definitely tiny number

Eva: Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood? I’m really curious how your parents instilled in you that belief that you can accomplish anything.

Haben: Absolutely. I’m gonna back up a little bit and make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to communication. So the way this is working is when you speak, I have an interpreter who’s typing down what you’re saying, and then I’m reading it on a digital braille display. And a braille display is a computer that has dots, and the dots pop up to form braille letters.

Eva: Cool.

Haben: I run my fingers across the dots, and I feel the dot patterns. Based on the dot patterns, I’m able to figure out what letters and then altogether words, sentences, ideas. So when you’re talking, I’m not able to hear you, but I’m reading the words, and then I’m voicing back with my own voice. Deafblindness is a spectrum. Some people are completely Deafblind, but most people have a little bit of vision and a little bit of hearing. I have a little bit of vision and hearing, so I’m able to hear my own voice that’s why I’m articulating  clearly, but I often can’t hear other people speaking, and that’s why I use the system of typing and reading braille to communicate with people. Does that make sense?

Eva: So now big dreamers, you know how we are actually talking over Skype

Olga: Yup, and that’s even more impressive because Haben graduated from Harvard law school. We’re gonna talk about it in a second. But I wanted to go back to the conversation about your childhood Haben because I know that your parents played a very very big role for you being so confident, and for you growing up to be this amazing lady. Can you tell us a little bit about them?

Haben: My parents grew up in Eritrea Ethiopia. And they immigrated to the United States, they came because of the war in Eritrea and Ethiopia. The two countries were in war. Eritrea wanted independence so my parents left the country because of the war. They had to start new lives, new culture, learning the system here, going to school here – it was really hard.

I was born in California, and I grew up hearing these stories about how my parents had to struggle to get an education, to find jobs, build up their community. And their family was back in Eritrea and Ethiopia. These stories inspired me. They worked hard, they had to be pioneers, in a sense, in a new culture. I’m similarly a pioneer, because in my family, my parents are not Deafblind. We had to figure a lot of things out.

In school, I was often the only Deafblind individual. I was the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. What that means is that I had to figure a lot of things out on my own, and Harvard Law School had to work with me on how we would do exams, how we would do internships, and it’s really useful to have stories of other pioneers – of people being first at figuring things out for themselves. So having parents like mine was really really helpful.

Olga: Wow, that’s very very impressive, Haben. And I can totally relate to parts of the story.

Eva: Mommy, can I tell?

Olga: Yes.

Eva: So my mom grew up in Russia

Olga: And even though we didn’t have to go through the war, I used to live in Soviet Union, where we were very limited in what we could do in the country. We could not leave the country, we didn’t have much food. Sometimes, we would have to stay in line for hours and hours just to get a loaf of bread – I remember that when I was seven or eight. So I’m very, very happy that my kids have the opportunity to live way better lives.

And like your parents, I came to the country here with US$300. I had no idea what I was gonna do here. I was just curious about traveling and learning a new language. So for Big Dreamers out there, we have a lesson: if someone tells you there is no way to do something, never believe it. Always know that there is a way, and your job is to find how.

Eva: Yes, and actually, I just went to Russia, and my mom was telling me stories before. It has changed a lot. My mom said there was a river in front of the house and she only went back there 10 or 15 years ago, and now the river has been changed into a road. Everything looks so amazing.

Olga: And different. And Eva had a hard time to believing, and said something like “What, that was Soviet Union, a closed country, and you couldn’t leave the country?”

But anyways, I applaud you Haben, because you were sort of Roger Bannister because you are a pioneer. And for our Big Dreamers out there who don’t know who Roger Bannister is, he is the the runner who broke the four-minute mile, and everyone before him assumed that it was impossible. But in 1954, Roger Bannister broke that record, and since then, hundreds of people have accomplished that goal. All of the runners around the world, even in high schools, they ran four-minute miles, and that’s considered to be the norm now. So whatever was used to be considered as something outrageous and not possible, with the persistence and focus, you can achieve that.

So Haben, you are like Roger Bannister for Deafblind people because of your incredible accomplishments. A Harvard School graduate? And now you’re doing incredible work for a lot of people.

Eva: Yeah, and the people then thought there was only one animal in the world could run under four minutes, which was of course, a cheetah.

Olga: We also know that you’ve met some incredible people, Haben.

Eva: Like President Obama and President Clinton. Are there any other public figures that you hope to meet someday?

Haben: You just said a lot, and I love to respond to everything you touched. First of all, it’s going to be a huge help in your future having a mom who have such an incredible story, so I’m thrilled to hear that you also have a pioneer in your family and that’s encouraging you and inspiring you to also be a pioneer. And for me, Deafblindness, being the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, that actually says more about Harvard law school because in the past, Harvard Law School used to exclude women. It used to be that woman couldn’t go there or people of color, so overtime the school has learned to be more inclusive and open it’s door to more people, even now, people with disabilities. So, it’s more about society changing. Often times if someone with disability has never done something, it’s more because of barriers in society that prevents the person from doing that such as elementary schools denying access for students with disabilities. If you have barriers in elementary school, it becomes very difficult to later go to law school.

Eva: Yeah

Olga: That’s right. So Haben, tell us a little bit more what you do right now for the disabled people. I know that you work really hard to make sure that they have better opportunities. What exactly do you do in that field?

Haben: So, I teach people in our organizations to value inclusion. I show that difference is an asset. It’s an asset to be different, and I teach the different ways of how having people with disabilities on your team, as employees, as fellow students, as friends in your community, adds value to your communities in schools and rec places.

I also teach how to remove barriers like having websites and apps that are accessible so that blind people can use your apps or deaf people can watch your videos including captions on videos and so deaf people can access them – including transcripts on podcasts, so that deaf individuals can access the podcast. Examples like that – adding image descriptions when you post photos on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter ensures that blind people can access the stories and images. Those are some of the things I teach.

Olga: That’s great!

Eva: Cool. Yeah. And also, I think technology is amazing, but they definitely have a way to go. We have Alexa in our kitchen, and it’s like this little round thing that you ask questions to, and it has to answer them, and sometimes it’s starts talking without us saying Alexa

Olga: But technology is definitely changing, and I’m glad to know that a lot of companies right now are working with people with disabilities, and they’re willing to make things happen so people all over the world have better opportunities plus the companies develop better. As you just said, Harvard law School changed a lot of things because of people who are different, and people who are coming to school who would like to learn, and make this world a better place. That’s great news.

Haben: Exactly. Society is changing. The designers of the technologies are thinking more about  inclusion, so that they can put ideas of inclusion into their tech, so more people can use the tech. Sometimes when technology has access barriers, and people with disabilities can’t use them, it’s because the designers weren’t thinking about inclusion. So people are building self-driving cars which is an amazing idea, but we have to think, “are they thinking about people with disabilities driving the cars?” because if they’re not, then people with disabilities won’t be able to drive the cars. So we have to remind designers and developers to make their services and products accessible.

Eva: Yeah

Olga: That’s right. We see examples of that everywhere. So little dreamers, next time look around and see where you can find things that help people with disabilities

Eva: Like the next time you’re in an elevator, you can take special notice that the numbers have little dots next to them which is what blind people touch to know what floor they’re going to

Olga: Yes, exactly. But besides technology, we also have amazing amazing animals that help Deafblind people.

Eva: Yeah. I mean our dog is just a little rascal named Annie. My family adores her, but I noticed in some of your pictures online you’re with a guide dog. Can you share with our audience how other than being amazing pets and friends, trained service dogs are able to help blind people get around?

Haben: So, I have a guide dog named Maxine. She’s a small german shepherd. She was trained at a guide dog school. Before I had a guide dog, I used a white cane everywhere, and a white cane is great because you don’t need to water it, you don’t need to feed it. When you’re done with it, you can fold it up and put it in your purse. But I also really love dogs, so I wanted to switch from using a cane to a guide dog so I that I could have a guide dog with me.

Maxine is lovely, very sweet, warm, affectionate, also very smart. She has big pointy ears, so if there’s a sound, a big noise, a fire alarm, she immediately alerts me so it’s an extra form of access to environmental surroundings.  She guides around obstacles. She went to school and went training on this, so if there’s a garbage can in the middle of the sidewalk, she’ll go around the garbage can. When we get to the end of the sidewalk, she’ll stop if there are cars coming. She will stop, she won’t go, so she’s trained to move around obstacles. But she doesn’t know where I want to go. I have to know where I’m going. I’m the one who gives her directions – left, right, forward. So she depends on me to  give her instructions on where we need to go. And I need to have the orientation  and mobility skills to move around the world. We travel all the time. We fly on planes all the time. She’s a really good traveller.

Eva: I have a question. Does she go in the actual plane with you or is she inside like a different plane going to the same place?

Haben: She’s in the actual plane. She sleeps by my feet. So when I’m on a plane, where your feet would go, that’s where Maxine is, and I just  share that area with her.

Olga: She’s so sweet. We saw her pictures. We encourage our big dreamers  to find Haben online and we will include all the links in our show notes, and you’ll definitely see Maxine as well. She’s the sweetest dog.

Eva: Yes, i saw her when I was looking at some pictures.

Olga: Haben also has very inspiring videos online, so make sure you check them out, and you get familiar with her work. And as Haben said, she is helping companies and people to be more dedicated about how we can make this world a better place for people with disabilities.

Haben, we have few more questions we would like to ask. Those would be our final questions and they’re very very important for our listeners

Eva: Here’s one of them: if you go back in time and talk to your 10 year old self, what would be the best advice?

Haben: I would tell my 10-year old self, don’t be afraid to be a pioneer. When you’re 10 years old, when you’re in middle school or even in elementary school, you’re often afraid of being different. It’s okay to be different and that it’s an asset to be different, so celebrate difference. Don’t be afraid of it.

Olga: Thank you. Haben, How was it like to meet President Obama and President Clinton?

Haben: It was amazing. They are both very warm and kind. President Obama has a great sense of humor. He was typing on the keywords, and I was reading his words in the braille display, and he let me tease him about his typing

Olga: Cool. Well Eva has a big dream as well

Eva: Yup. My big dream is meeting President Obama, President Clinton and also Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, and if anybody in our audience, can help set that up, please email my mom at  olga@dreambigpodcast.com. Let’s make it happen big dreamers!

Olga: Let’s make it happen together. That would be cool to have presidents and their wives on our show as well, so we can share valuable information. So Haben, what trait do you have that has enabled you to take your big dreams and make them a reality?

Haben: I have many traits, one trait that really helps is persistence. I overcome so many barriers in the world. For example, websites that are not accessible, and when I’m persistent, I find ways to get around them. I contact the developers of the website, and let them know about the barriers so that they can remove them. I know my legal rights. I have the skills and abilities to take legal action. So being persistent helps remove barriers so you can reach your dream.

Olga: That’s amazing. That’s a great trait.

Eva: Yeah, and here’s one more: when you have doubted yourself in the past, what made you overcome those fears and continue to persevere your dream?

Haben: Friends, family – It’s really important to have a strong community that’ll cheer for you, and then remind you to be persistent, so that if you feel sad, if you feel scared, your friends and family can say “You can do it” So develop friendships with amazing people who will support you.

Eva: Great. That’s amazing. And also, I have two more questions for this interview, and one of them is you have already made many of your dreams a reality, but if you look at yourself today, what is your Big Dream for the future?

Haben: My big dream right now is to perform in an improv comedy show and make a documentary about my journey learning improv. Last year, I contacted an improv comedy school in the Bay area, and they told me “We don’t mean to be discouraging, but we don’t see how we can make our programs accessible.” This was disappointing and I continued to think about it, and talk to people about it and eventually an improv school in New York reached out to me, and said “We think improv can be inclusive. We think we can make it accessible, so I connected with them. I went to one of their workshops, and they were very inclusive.  They found ways for me to learn improv, and I’ve been learning improv with them. We think we have the ability to make an improv show, so we’re looking for producers, people who can help us turn this idea into a documentary.

Eva: That’s amazing

Olga: That’s amazing. That again and again shows how persistent you are. Again big dreamers remember, if  someone tells you there is no way, make sure you go on with your dream and remember there’s always a way. All famous people, including your favorite Walt Disney, who created Disney and everything that came from it, he got rejected more than a hundred times when he was looking for investment for Walt Disney studios. Rejection doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but rejection just means that you become stronger with your dreams and you keep going.

Eva: Totally! And you keep keep keep keep keep keep keep keep dreaming big.

Olga: And take a massive action.

Eva: Yeah, and the final question for today is where can our audience find out more about you?

Haben: You’re welcome to go to my website habengirma.com – H A B E N G I R M A dot com. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. My username is habengirma. I would love for you to come and learn more about disability rights and Maxine, the guide dog.

Eva: Thank you

Olga: Thank you Haben. And again, just reminding our big dreamers that we would include all the links in our show notes. Please make sure that if you didn’t hear the name correctly, or maybe got confused, make sure to go in our website and you will find all the information about Haben and Maxine. You’ll find pictures as well as an opportunity to connect with her on different channels. And please if you have any connections with producers that can help Haben make her dream a reality, please reach out to her or to us, and let’s make this world a better place for everyone.  Thank you so much and keep dreaming big and take action

Eva: Bye

Haben: Bye

Eva: Thank you so much

 

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